I’m at BuildStuff Vilnius, in November 2015. It’s Thursday night. Mark Rendle and I are doing our comedy panel game quiz thing. We found out about ten minutes ago that we’re doing our show in a nightclub, with no wi-fi, hardly any microphones and… basically it’s a bit of a train crash. And we’re hustling for volunteers to help us make the train crash funny. Between Mark’s friends and mine, we rope in half-a-dozen people. One of them is this weird tall Belgian guy. He’s good; they’re all good. He gets it. He’s funny and engaging and genuinely interesting. We somehow walk away with our collective dignity intact, and people even tell us afterwards that they loved it. Mark and I swear to each other we’re never doing that particular show in a nightclub ever again.
We’re still in Vilnius, it’s Saturday, and I’ve had the day off. I’ve been sightseeing. I’m tired and hungry, and I don’t want to just head back to the hotel, so I find a café with wi-fi, I look up Vilnius on MetalTravelGuide.com, and I find this bar – Bix Baras. I go in, I chat to the staff. Their English, like their beer, is excellent; my Lithuanan barely covers “hello” and “thank you” – but I eat lunch and have a few beers, and then head back to the hotel. When I get there, the tall Belgian guy from the quiz is playing the piano – one of those wonderful grand pianos that adorn hotel bars the world over without anyone ever really playing them. I ask if I can join him; he moves over, I sit down, we play for a while – he’s doing most of the work, I’m just bouncing along on the white notes, picking out pentatonic minor melodies that fit with what he’s doing. It’s fun. It’s nice, and it feels somehow conspiratorial – for starters, we’re playing one of those pianos that you probably walk past every day of your life and assume that it’s for Other People to play, and not for you, and yet here we are.
I go upstairs, change my shirt, ask Seb if he fancies heading downtown for a beer. We need a night off from the whole conference crowd, but on a whim I ask the Belgian guy on the piano if he wants to join us. He says yes, and introduces himself as Pieter. We’ve officially met. We jump in a cab and head downtown.
Bix Baras has good beer, and great snacks, and we talk – myself and Seb and Pieter. We drink, we eat hard cheese and pigs’ ears and Lithuanian dark bread. And it’s remarkable, because there’s no small talk. We talk about ideas, and we share experiences. The conversation is disarmingly easy. I’m not used to this. Most people at conferences talk about tech – about .NET or NodeJS or Docker. We talk about life. We talk about what we do, and why we care. We talk about friendship, and failed relationships, and psychopaths, and adventures. We walk up the road to the pool hall where some of the other BuildStuff gang are having drinks. Pieter and I get talking about speaking. Within the hour, he’s challenged pretty much every idea I’ve ever had about speaking and giving talks, but it doesn’t feel adversarial – there’s something genuinely inspirational about it. We finish our drinks and wander back to the hotel, but the conversation resonates.
Sunday, we fly to Kyiv – a whole crowd of us. I’m walking next to Pieter on the tarmac as we head out to our plane, and he’s talking about how much he’s enjoying the experience – “For the first time ever I feel like I’m on the road with my gang” – and I know exactly what he means. The sense of camaraderie is wonderful – 30-odd hardcore geeks heading out to Ukraine together – yet it somehow didn’t really click until Pieter pointed it out.
In Kyiv, we hang out. We chat. We talk about code, about community, about psychology. I watch his talk about building open source communities. From where I’m sitting, he appears to give a 50-minute talk with no notes and no slides, and solve a Rubik’s cube while he’s doing it. He confides in me afterwards that the cube was a bit of a stunt – shuffle it a couple of turns, memorise them, play them backwards on stage – but that almost doesn’t matter; the talk is brilliant, the audience are involved and engaged, and I’m sat there wondering how much of my life I’ve spent making Powerpoint slides, and why…
Eventually, Pieter turns our conversation in that bar in Vilnius into a blog post – Ten Steps to Better Public Speaking – which is simultaneously gratifying and terrifying. Gratifying that he thinks our conversation is interesting enough to warrant an entire blog post. Terrifying, because when you’re name-checked in a post like that, the only thing you can really do is rise to the challenge, and that means I’m gonna need to REALLY work hard on… well, on every talk I ever give again.
Months pass. I think often of our conversation in that pool hall in Vilnius and the blog post that followed. One day, I email Pieter – “Hey, remember that chat in Vilnius? Do you fancy doing a joint talk at NDC Oslo?” He says yes, I write something up, I send it over, and start worrying about the fact I’ll be sharing a stage with the great Pieter Hintjens – and about the fact I’ve signed up to give a talk that’s gonna drag me out of my comfort zone in almost every way.
By chance, I’m in Brussels in March, en route to a long weekend in Leuven with my girlfriend. I email Pieter, we arrange to meet for lunch: we talk about ideas. He’s riffing on ideas – about opening an office in Brussels for people who need a place to hack; about using mesh networking to build “smart chairs” that tell the pavement café when they need replacing; about speaking and software and people and life. He talks about his father, about euthanasia, about family. We talk briefly about our joint talk and NDC, but not too much; after all, too much rehearsal would undermine the vulnerability. And we part with a hug, and a promise to see each other in Oslo.
I watch Pieter and @jesslynnrose joking on Twitter about gender-swapped TV shows. Pieter posts this: prescient, or just meditative? Then on March 26th, following a whole lot of the kind of fallout that just doesn’t fit into 140 characters, Pieter announces he’s leaving Twitter. I’m sad to see him go, but have no doubt I’ll have many more evenings hanging out and having my preconceptions challenged by this remarkable individual.
Then I get an email. The subject just says “NDC” It reads:
Seems my cancer has come back... still waiting for detailed prognosis and next steps. Looks pretty bad atm. In any case, no travel for me for the next months.
You're going to have to do the talk by yourself. Stick to the ten rules, watch my Serbian video a couple of times and you'll do fine. :)
Sorry about this.”
I don’t care about the talk. I’m worried about my friend – this sounds bad. I email him back. He replies. Time passes. He rejoins Twitter, because it’s a good way to connect with a lot of people who want to know what’s going on. And then he posts this:
We will try chemotherapy. It's palliative, there is no cure for this. So, time to start saying goodbye.
And then he posts “A Protocol for Dying”, and it’s pretty clear that this is it. One way or another, it won’t be long before Pieter’s not around any more. And people start talking, and posting, and tweeting… and before long, a common thread emerges. It seems you really didn’t need to spend very much time with Pieter for him to leave a lasting impression.
I spent five days with Pieter late last year, and had lunch with him once, a few months ago. I’ve never visited his house, never met his family, never collaborated with him – but the time I’ve spent with him and the conversations we’ve shared have been some of the most profoundly challenging and inspiring interactions I’ve had in a very long time. And it’s not just me. There are countless comments on Pieter’s most recent blog posts from people who met him once or twice – or not at all, in the case of the people who know Pieter through email and through his code – but whom nevertheless believe that knowing him has had a profound impact on their life.
I was in a restaurant earlier tonight, with my girlfriend, Clare, and some of my cow-orkers. We ended up talking about Pieter. Clare met Pieter briefly, for about five minutes, in Bruxelles-Midi railway station back in March. At the time, Clare was feeling completely freaked out at being in an unfamiliar country where she didn’t speak the language or know how things worked, and my meeting up with this weird guy who “looked really stern” didn’t help at all. Pieter warned us (a pair of hardcore Londoners) about the risks and dangers of hanging out in the station, and then helped Clare find her train to Leuven.
When I got that first email from Pieter, I told Clare. When I saw his Twitter post, and when he posted “A Protocol for Dying”, I told Clare – and she’d already read it. And then she said to me tonight “I want to email Pieter. I don’t know him, but I know what’s happening, and I just want him to know that I’ll remember him next time – probably every time? – that I go through Brussels, and I hope one day I’ll be a bit more badass – just like he is.”
So here’s to Pieter, and here’s hoping that long after he’s stopped coding and tweeting and blogging, he’ll still be inspiring all of us to open up, to embrace our vulnerability and “to be a bit more badass”.